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Mutchler v. Colvin

United States District Court, Eighth Circuit

January 17, 2014

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


LINDA R. READE, Chief District Judge.


The matter before the court is Plaintiff Deanna Lynn Mutchler's[1] Objections (docket no. 17) to United States Magistrate Judge Jon S. Scoles's Report and Recommendation (docket no. 16). The Report and Recommendation recommends that the court affirm the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying Mutchler Title II disability insurance benefits and Title XVI supplemental security income ("SSI") benefits and that the court dismiss with prejudice Mutchler's Complaint (docket no. 3).


On February 20, 2013, Mutchler filed this action for judicial review. On May 2, 2013, the Commissioner filed an Answer (docket no. 6). On June 3, 2013, Mutchler filed a brief ("Mutchler's Brief") (docket no. 9) arguing that there is not substantial evidence in the record to support the ALJ's finding that she is not disabled and that she is functionally capable of performing other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. On August 1, 2013, the Commissioner filed a brief ("Commissioner's Brief") (docket no. 10) asking the court to affirm the ALJ's decision. On August 8, 2013, Mutchler filed a reply brief ("Mutchler Reply") (docket no. 11).

On October 29, 2013, the undersigned referred this matter to United States Magistrate Judge Jon S. Scoles for issuance of a report and recommendation pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B). October 29, 2013 Order (docket no. 15). Judge Scoles filed the Report and Recommendation on November 8, 2013, and Mutchler filed the Objections on November 22, 2013. The Commissioner filed a Response (docket no. 18) on November 22, 2013.


Mutchler was born in 1960 and is a high school graduate. On March 3, 2010, Mutchler applied for both disability insurance benefits and SSI benefits. Mutchler's applications were denied on June 16, 2010. On August 23, 2010, her applications were denied on reconsideration. On November 8, 2011, Mutchler appeared via video conference with her attorney before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Julie K. Bruntz for an administrative hearing. On January 17, 2012, the ALJ denied Mutchler's claims. On January 23, 2013, the Appeals Council denied Mutchler's request for review. Consequently, the ALJ's January 17, 2012 decision was adopted as the Commissioner's final decision.

The record contains a detailed earnings report for Mutchler. The report covers the time period from 1970 to 2010. Prior to 1977, Mutchler had minimal earnings. From 1977 to 1984, she earned between $3, 496.78 (1980) and $8, 413.30 (1979) per year. She had no earnings from 1985 to 1987. From 1988 to 2004, she earned between $2, 895.10 (2003) and $28, 942.65 (2001) per year. Mutchler had no earnings from 2005 to 2006. She earned less than $1, 000 in 2007 and 2008. In 2009, she earned $4, 064.54. She has no earnings since 2010.

At the administrative hearing, Mutchler alleged that the onset date for her disabilities, which include emphysema, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease ("COPD"), colon cancer, anemia and gastroesophageal reflux disease, was February 1, 2009. Mutchler also testified at the administrative hearing that she does not like to spend time in public places because people bother her. During the hearing, the ALJ provided vocational expert, Elizabeth M. Albrecht, with a hypothetical for an individual matching the ALJ's eventual residual functional capacity ("RFC"). The vocational expert stated that this individual could perform three jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy: a counter clerk, an usher and an information clerk.


A. Review of ALJ's Decision

Title 42, United States Code, Section 405(g) provides that the Commissioner's final determination following an administrative hearing not to award disability insurance benefits is subject to judicial review. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3), the Commissioner's final determination after an administrative hearing not to award SSI benefits is subject to judicial review to the same extent as provided in 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3). 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) provides the court with the power to: "[E]nter... a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner... with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). "The findings of the Commissioner... as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive." Id.

The court will "affirm the Commissioner's decision if supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole." Anderson v. Astrue, 696 F.3d 790, 793 (8th Cir. 2012). "Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance but... enough that a reasonable mind would find it adequate to support the conclusion.'" Id. (alteration in original) (quoting Jones v. Astrue, 619 F.3d 963, 968 (8th Cir. 2010)); see also Wildman v. Astrue, 596 F.3d 959, 963-64 (8th Cir. 2010) ("Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance, but is enough that a reasonable mind would find it adequate to support the Commissioner's conclusion." (quoting McKinney v. Apfel, 228 F.3d 860, 863 (8th Cir. 2000)) (internal quotation marks omitted)).

In determining whether the ALJ's decision meets this standard, the court considers "all of the evidence that was before the ALJ, but [it does] not re-weigh the evidence." Vester v. Barnhart, 416 F.3d 886, 889 (8th Cir. 2005). The court not only considers the evidence that supports the ALJ's decision, but also the evidence that detracts from his or her decision. Moore v. Astrue, 623 F.3d 599, 602 (8th Cir. 2010); see also Cox v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 614, 617 (8th Cir. 2007) (stating that a court's review of an ALJ's decision "extends beyond examining the record to find substantial evidence in support of the ALJ's decision; [the court must] also consider evidence in the record that fairly detracts from that decision"). In Culbertson v. Shalala, 30 F.3d 934, 939 (8th Cir. 1994), the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals explained this standard as follows:

This standard is something less than the weight of the evidence and it allows for the possibility of drawing two inconsistent conclusions, thus it embodies a zone of choice within which the [Commissioner] may decide to grant or deny benefits without being subject to reversal on appeal.

Id. (quoting Turley v. Sullivan, 939 F.2d 524, 528 (8th Cir. 1991)) (internal quotation marks omitted). In Casey v. Astrue, 503 F.3d 687 (8th Cir. 2007), the Eighth Circuit further explained that a court "will not disturb the denial of benefits so long as the ALJ's decision falls within the available zone of choice.'" Id. at 691 (quoting Nicola v. Astrue, 480 F.3d 885, 886 (8th Cir. 2007)). "A decision is not outside that zone of choice' simply because [the court] may have reached a different conclusion had [the court] been the fact finder in the first instance." Hacker v. Barnhart, 459 F.3d 934, 936 (8th Cir. 2006). Therefore, "even if inconsistent conclusions may be drawn from the evidence, the agency's decision will be upheld if it is supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole." Guilliams v. Barnhart, 393 F.3d 798, 801 (8th Cir. 2005); see also Wildman, 596 F.3d at 964 ("If substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision, [the court] will not reverse the decision merely because substantial evidence would have also supported a contrary outcome, or because [the court] would have decided differently."); Moore v. Astrue, 572 F.3d 520, 522 (8th Cir. 2009) ("If there is substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's conclusion, we may not reverse even though there may also be substantial evidence to support the opposite conclusion." (quoting Clay v. Barnhart, 417 F.3d 922, 928 (8th Cir. 2005)) (internal quotation marks omitted)).

When a district court reviews an ALJ's decision, "[t]he grounds upon which an administrative order must be judged are those upon which the record discloses that its action was based." Mouawad v. Gonzalez, 485 F.3d 405, 413 (8th Cir. 2007) (quoting SEC v. Chenery Corp., 318 U.S. 80, 87 (1943)) (internal quotation marks omitted). The grounds on which "the administrative agency acted [must be] clearly disclosed and adequately sustained." Chenery Corp., 318 U.S. at 94. "[A] reviewing court may not uphold an agency decision based on reasons not articulated by the agency, ' when the agency [has] fail[ed] to make a necessary determination of fact or policy' upon which the court's alternative basis is premised." Banks v. Massanari, 258 F.3d 820, 824 (8th Cir. 2001) (alterations in original) (quoting Healtheast Bethesda Lutheran Hosp. & Rehab Ctr. v. Shalala, 164 F.3d 415, 418 (8th Cir. 1998)). However, "a deficiency in opinion-writing is not a sufficient reason for setting aside an administrative finding where the deficiency had no practical effect on the outcome of the case, " Senne v. Apfel, 198 F.3d 1065, 1067 (8th Cir. 1999), and "an ALJ's failure to adequately explain his factual findings is not a sufficient reason for setting aside an administrative finding' where the record supports the overall determination, " Scott ex rel. Scott v. Astrue, 529 F.3d 818, 822 (8th Cir. 2008) (quoting Senne, 198 F.3d at 1067).

B. Review of Report and Recommendation

The standard of review to be applied by the court to a report and recommendation of a magistrate ...

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